When Fear Ruled – No Japs Wanted

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c1fed30af4b9e22cd985c60a1695140dRecently another December 7th passed. While that day might not mean much to you, for me it carries a bit of weight. It’s the day commemorating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in the words of FDR, “A day that will live in infamy.” Having visited the site outside of Honolulu, I am both humbled, grateful for those who serve in the military yet deeply disturbed by the loss of human life that day. While I mostly understand the historical reasons why Japan allied themselves with the maniac Hitler, in other ways it is beyond my comprehension as well as somewhat embarrassing. As I have been thinking about it, that day has at least some import to the public discourse and social media posts we observe today.

Even before the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor there was a strong anti-Japanese sentiment present. 5536346There was such a deep-seated xenophobia of the Japanese that in some parts laws making inter-racial dating illegal were upheld (Anti-miscegenation laws have a long history). So when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, it gave reason to mistakenly use “prudence” language to mask over fear and war hysteria. The truth is (and I’m not completely without understanding) that people were incredibly fearful of Japanese people. The narrative of suspicion grew – Who was loyal to the US? Who was loyal to Japan and here to serve as a spy? Who were “these people” who came from a foreign country, who look incredibly different and act incredibly different from us?

On February 19, 1942 with Executive Order 9066, FDR authorized the deportation and incarceration of Japanese-Americans. Here’s where the story gets very personal – my parents and relatives lived in Los Angeles at the time putting them in the heart of the executive order (only Japanese who lived on the west coast were effected). My parents were young children at the time the order touched their lives but their memories are still vivid.

The Japanese have a saying, “Shikata ga nai” which roughly translates to “There’s nothing you can do about it”. In all the years I was growing up, when I asked about the experience of being placed in a war camp, I usually got a somewhat detached answer largely driven by “Shikata ga nai”. But it was a few years ago I finally saw my mother cry for her older brother who lost opportunities, mainly to go to college, because of the incarceration. It had a tremendous effect on lives and on the psyche of people who lived in the United States.

heart-mountain_full_jpg_515x515_detail_q85Internment war camps were built hastily across the United States. My parents were sent to Heart Mountain, Wyoming where construction of the barracks began in the early summer of 1942 with the first trainload of internees arriving in August of that year. The camp remained active until it closed in late 1945. What should shock all of us into reality is that over two-thirds of the Japanese who were sent to war camps were American citizens. Whether the language was out of fear for their safety or concern for the security of our country, the plain fact is American citizens were incarcerated with no legal recourse.

Many people lost everything. When the EO was issued in February there was quite a bit of confusion. sa11Property was either entrusted to Caucasian friends or just left behind. In some cases, people came back from their sentence to find that what they had entrusted to friends was no longer their own. They did not have much time to find a way to secure their property as they were quickly sent to Santa Anita race track in March as a temporary “holding tank” until the camps could be built.

The issue of terror in our world today rightfully creates a deep sense of insecurity and fear. Who do we trust? Who is a loyal citizen of the land? I’m certainly not a geo-political expert but I think I know the human heart and it’s propensity to isolate others, treat them with suspicion, lump them all together. I hope we would never incarcerate American citizens again to that degree but you can see how fear manifests itself. While I understand this fear, my belief is it was a gross over-reaction to “the foreigner” first because we incarcerated American citizens without due process and, second, Japanese-American loyalty was under-estimated since the most highly decorated unit in Europe consisted of second generation Japanese-Americans, the 442nd.

So to say things like, “I don’t look at a person’s skin color” is nonsense. We do it all the time and, honestly, it leads us to treat others different because of how they look or behave. The default mode of human heart is to self-protect and it will use all sorts of rhetoric (e.g. “rights”, “safety”, “those people”) as a means to self-protect and make gross over-generalizations to categorize good and bad. In some ways, by walling off others we create our own “camps” in our heart that keep the other isolated, separated from us “good Christians” or “patriotic Americans”.

I’d be the first one to say that national security is important. But what I’ve noticed from leaders, Christian leaders, people who say they follow Jesus, is the fear of another can sometimes overwhelm the need to love another. It can lead to a brazen bravado that we’ve seen recently with, “You can come and get some of this” or “We don’t want anymore Muslims coming to this country for a given time.” I’m trying very hard not to be reductionistic and come across with a cheap clichè like, “Let’s just love everyone”. I think it takes thoughtful, humble discernment and discussion keeping issues of security and safety as part of the discussion while practicing the command to love your neighbor as one of the two great commandments. In many ways this issue of fear present in our lives is a clarifying point of discipleship – who do we really follow? Do we really believe God is present and He is working everything out toward a redemptive, restorative end? In Augustine’s words, is it the City of God or the City of Man? Jesus says in Matthew 8:26, “You of little faith. Why are so afraid?”

 

Ways to Prepare Your Heart for Christmas

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Bethlehem_in_the_snow1Thanksgiving is a great time to take a needed pause to give thanks to God. But once you’ve woken up from your nap, most of us are jarred into the reality that the Christmas season is upon us. Unless we’ve already shopped for gifts and don’t have any gatherings to attend, for most of us life can feel pretty full, sometimes overwhelming. How can we “re-train” ourselves to prepare our hearts for Christmas? How can we create a bit of margin in our lives to dig more deeply into the meaning of incarnation? Here are just a few thoughts…

Observe Advent, The word means “to wait” and the early church observed a season (four Sundays before Christmas Day) in order to expectantly wait for the glorious announcement of good news. Of course we know how the story goes but when we observe Advent we place ourselves in the story, waiting, longing for Messiah who would come to rescue His people. Waiting is difficult stuff because it literally turns the values of the world on its head. Rather than consume or be busy, waiting feels unproductive. Yet, we are to let the anticipation build up (just like Lent and it’s focus on Christ’s death and resurrection) by not getting to Christ’s birth too quickly. Let it simmer in your hearts as it opens up more room, more capacity to receive this incredible news from the Father.

Some great Advent devotionals are:

Good News of Great Joy by John Piper

Watch For the Light:Readings for Advent and Christmas – this could be one of my favorites because it has readings from Bonhoeffer, Lewis, Phil Yancey, and Bernard of Clairvaux. Keep in mind that the book covers a wide range of people in history as well as theological persuasion (which you might not think is good but I think quite the opposite).

Advent and Christmas Wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas

Be on the lookout how you can serve your neighbors. Open your eyes to the opportunities God gives each day to see who your neighbor is. I would always encourage people to give financially because it is a way to serve those in need. But also look around for you the marginalized, the lonely, the immigrant/refugee, the lost and think of a way that you can serve them in large or small ways. This is important because Christmas is God’s self-giving as He came to live in our neighborhood (John 1:14). We give of ourselves and at times when it’s uncomfortable because God gave of Himself. In other words, be ready to have your daily plans be turned upside down because you have the opportunity to give.

Do something completely contrary to how most people celebrate the holidays. What if you took just one Christmas and decided as a family that you didn’t need anything? What if you decided to take all the money you would spend on presents in order to bless someone else? Our church has decided that everything that is given above our set budget for the balance of the year will be given away to some key opportunities – rescuing children in the world who are vulnerable and organizations that minister locally to the least and the lost. That is upside down and makes no sense other than framing through a gospel lens.

Ann Voscamp writes,

“We’re ready for Christmas, not when we have all the gifts, but when we are ready for Christ – when we’re ready to give all of ourselves to Christ.”

This critical period before Christmas Day, let’s prepare our hearts by waiting and making more space, increasing the capacity for our hearts to experience true joy on that morning as we celebrate the Son’s incarnation!

Gratitude During the Holidays (and Year Round)!

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111787-109616One of the keys marks of a follower of Christ is the virtue of gratitude or thankfulness is deeply
pressed down into their heart. While complaining or being critical/cynical is a much easier hill to slide down, to become a person that is grateful and expresses gratitude takes much more intention. In other words, no one wakes up and thinks, what can I complain about today? I want to be the most sour, negative person around. Doesn’t it take much more intention to think, how can I become a grateful person today?

I certainly might be wrong but it seems to me that gratitude is best expressed when it’s toward another person. As I’ve been thinking about this over the past few days, I might be grateful for GPS on my phone that saved me from getting utterly lost in Chicago the other day. But it seemed to me that “kind” of gratitude toward an object has “utility”, it has usefulness. Maybe a simple example would be helpful. When you open presents on Christmas, you are grateful that the clothes you get actually updates your wardrobe and keeps you from feeling like you are a relic from the 80’s. The clothes has utility or a usefulness to another end which is updating your look.

Stay with me, but it seems to me that gratitude when it is expressed right, is always toward another person. That kind of gratitude seems to be different, thicker, maybe more “real”. The gratitude I feel toward the giver is simply based on who they are and not that they are a way to get things (we call that using someone else). In many ways, gratitude is connected to grace because the emotion tries to capture something of the unmerited nature of the gift that is given for your good.

Of course, the best response on our part when we’ve received the gift is to accept it and in no way try to respond to “pay back”. Trust me, growing up in an Asian culture, I know how gift giving with reciprocity is attached. Gratitude is the right response when you are given a gift that comes from the other person’s heart that is not attached to anything except your well being.  Any sense in which you then try to perform in return is to miss gratitude

We are grateful to God as His people not just this time of year, but every day, because we understand the nature of the Giver and the gift. To see God’s good gifts as a means to something else is to use God for your ends and purposes. To simply stop, let the free gift of grace from an Ultimate Person, sink into your heart is actually how God intended for us to live. Gratitude is best expressed in deep heart-felt gratitude for the gospel and everything little good gift that comes from His hand.

Eight Reasons to Avoid Black Friday

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seven-deadly-sins1I love a good deal. My wife can tell you that for some things I like bargaining for the lowest price (on trips overseas it’s not the price.. it’s all about dickering!). But as I’ve been thinking about Black Friday, what is it about a day that often brings out the worst in people all in the name of consumerism and a good deal?

I’m not trying to guilt people into staying home on Friday (or Thursday night) but I have been thinking more about how consumerism influences our mental map of how we see the world, our relationships, God, as well as the effect it has on our soul. I’ve been reflecting on how events like Black Friday actually foster vice (ignoble and ugly character habits) and not virtue (noble, wonderfully beautiful character habits) in a person.

What should be of great interest to us is that unchecked consumption has been publicly denounced by Christians of all ages, backgrounds, time periods and theological persuasions. I couldn’t identify one thinker/theologian who thought consuming more and more was basically a good thing1. In fact, they seem to emphasize just the opposite – virtues like simplicity and contentment with sacrificial charity, were highlighted. Sören Kierkegaard once wrote,

“With respect to physical existence, one needs little, and to the degree that one needs less, the more perfect one is.”2

Focusing on consumption is an unhealthy way to move through life, with its tentacles reaching even into our practice of our faith (in other words, you treat your faith much like a consumer transaction between you, God and church). I’m not trying to put an end to our shopping habits or coming across in a legalistic way. Nor am I denying that everything created is a good gift from God (James 1:17). It’s simply meant to help us pause this year, take a breath and reflect, especially if the justification is, “But we do it because everyone else does!” So here are the seven deadly sins plus one for this Black Friday…

LUST8. Luxury or lust. This is the desire for pleasure that is given too much strength, not in the right context, and not toward the right thing. Lust just doesn’t have to be a sexual thing. It’s an over-desire for anything other than God. Isn’t this really what the advertising does to us? It ramps up a desire for something using “deals” as the way to motivate and justify our behavior.

images7. Gluttony. The thinking is if a little bit of merchandise is good for you because you’re saving money, then more must be better. A few years ago, I remember feeling sick to my stomach watching people rush around Best Buy with shopping carts literally throwing things in once the door opened. Even when it comes to “saving money” (that’s being debated whether you are actually getting good deals) there doesn’t seem to be an end. Read this CNET article if you don’t really believe the economic myth of Pamplona-like shopping: Is Black Friday Worth It?


SLOTH-e1374803839836
6. Sloth. This is also called acedia, and it wasn’t just laziness like laying around the whole day watching endless tv on Netflix. Sloth can include the idea of being spiritually passive by letting other forces control you. It’s the passive “whatever” or punting to “everyone else does it”. These outside forces guide the formation of your soul in not becoming who you were made to be. Maybe we should pray on Thursday night, “Help me to be grateful and content. At the core of my identity, I am not a consumer.”


WRATH-e13748038921105. Wrath or anger
. Trying to fight off other shoppers begins in the parking lot. How many times have you, while searching for a place to park, had someone cut in front of you but you then blessed them? How many of you have blessed other people in the store with a kind, “No, after you”, when looking at “doorbusters”? The day is constructed to create a certain amount of madness, frustration and anger and when you feel this it is impossible to bless other people.

GREED4. Greed or avarice. This is the “over-desire” to accumulate a good and hoard or keep it for yourself. Thomas Aquinas thought this was an especially destructive sin because he saw it as an offense to God and His self-giving in the gospel. In “over-desiring” the best deal possible for material goods you can end up being in competition with others for those same goods.

ENVY-e13748609287823. Envy. Have you ever felt discontentment after shopping? Envy keeps us immature because we never end up being completely satisfied with what we have. Days like Black Friday, while it might have some value, actually can end up leaving us feeling more empty because our needs are never completely satisfied. There’s always more to buy! You can never drown yourself in enough stuff to completely satiate your need for more.

PRIDE2. Pride. This is the elevation of self before others. It’s not just admiring yourself but placing yourself as the center of activity with everything revolving around you. The six other vices are connected to pride in some way. It doesn’t take much thought to see that Black Friday is under the guise of “giving to others” but, honestly, it’s about you.

And finally, you might suffer the indignity of losing your stretchy pants rushing to buy something incredibly “valuable”. The worst thing possible is that in the frenzy of buying something as valuable as a $3 waffle iron, you might end losing not only your pants but also your humanity …

So this year, as we enter into Thanksgiving and Christmas, let’s all pause and take a deep breath. Be thankful to God while also learning to be content. The gospel is the good news that the Father gave of Himself by sending His Son so that we would not be defined by what we accumulate but by Christ’s work on our behalf!

 

1 This is, in fact, one way we can tell where some teachers are on the wrong theological track. Anytime someone teaches that more possessions is a spiritual sign of faith and God’s favor, you best proceed cautiously in accepting the rest of their teaching. The fact that they oppose such a wide representation of Christians should tell us that they are in the minority and we are justified in being suspicious of prosperity theology.
2 Sören Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuidling Discourses

The Capacity to Care

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What-others-think-pictureI’ve been reading so much on social media, much of it fueled by the vicious events in Paris last week. I’m so grateful for the friends I know who have shared their thoughts, even if there has been a diversity of opinions among them. Even today my friend, Josh Reasoner, shared some thoughts about children who have been affected by the seeming craziness of the world.

I have to admit that with the world being upside-down, my heart literally can’t care for everything in the same way with the same passion…

  • I want IJAM to rescue more children from the international sex traffic/slavery industry
  • I want Kids Alive to open more homes for children at risk around the world who are largely in the shadows of our consciousness
  • I want refugees to find a home. In fact, I want them to have their home back.
  • I want not only objective racism to end, but I also want the subtle beliefs that lingers in all of our heart to be confronted
  • I want the scourge that is abortion to meet it’s demise
  • I want women who have been physically abused in a relationship to find safety and healing
  • I want people to actually care for the poor and not just with more policies
  • I want people to care for those who are homeless and welcome them
  • I want healthy churches planted, I want more mission partnerships much the partnership between Nairobi Chapel and churches here in the States
  • I want marriages to last
  • I want a real shalom between Israel and Palestine
  • I want the vileness of pornography to finally be shown for what it is and to die a quick death
  • And the list goes on. Ok, I don’t really care about Starbucks cups. I’m glad that the media is the only entity (and weird Christians) that seem to think this is important because I haven’t met anyone who really cares much about it…

I know my heart can’t care for all of this in the same way, with the same intensity. My heart has a capacity for caring because I am finite. I can say I’m passionate about all of this, but to be honest, that’s a bit exaggerated (maybe because I want people to think I care about everything equally). Yet, in my finitude I must remember that God is infinite and His capacity to care for those on the margins, for His Church, for people is infinite. He has a huge heart.

The answer cannot be to wall off the capacity to care and to feel compassion. Regardless of what the political and media talking heads say or the conversations around the water cooler, to simply not care is mistaken. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes,

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

To stop loving and caring is to actually harden our hearts and to put an effective roadblock on spiritual formation. We might not agree with each other on the exact solution but simply to close the heart off to any injustice in the world is not an option.To open our hearts toward others by caring is something that we have opportunities each and every day to demonstrate right where we live. Greg Forester wrote in Revisiting Faithful Presence,

“Of course the world is corrupt and failing apart. The gospel calls us to love it and serve it anyway. We must have what Tom Nelson calls hopeful realism – neither closing our eyes to the world’s evil nor forgetting that a higher power, one our eyes can’t see, is already at work, all around us, and also within us.”

But the really good news is that God’s capacity to care is infinite and His promise is one day He will make everything right. This is not a wish dream but rather it finds itself in the deepest longings of our heart. All of us can use a bit more of His loving and compassionate heart in order to act in this way both in great and small ways. But we can also continue to pray that He would have mercy on us for the temptation to wall our hearts off, mercy for those who are suffering in the world, and that He would not tarry in His return to make everything right.

Kingdom Prayer

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The Kingdom Come 2As you think about prayer what comes to mind? Even more revealing might be to ask, in what way is your prayer life expressed? In other words, I think most people when asked what prayer is, would respond that it’s primarily communicating with God. Good start! But as they describe their practice of prayer it would probably consist mostly of making requests not only for God’s grace and mercy during the day but for specific things in their life.

Jack Miller suggested in his book Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, there is a difference between “maintenance prayer” and “frontline prayer”. When Miller speaks of maintenance prayer he’s thinking of those prayers that are,

“…designed more to preserve the status quo of the inward-looking church than to break down its rigidities.” 1

I think what Miller had in mind were those quick general prayers that don’t reflect a sense of desperation and God’s weightiness but rather for God to bless us. While I think there’s something about praying for our church and people that’s appropriate and important, that should not be relegated to a five minute prayer at the end or some sort of quick generic request for God’s blessing.

Frontline prayer, by contrast, is focused on God’s heart, His presence and His Kingdom. It is Jesus’ prayer, “Let your will be reflected here on earth, in our lives, as it is where you rule and reign fully.” It’s the kind of prayer that brings you to the end of yourself because that’s the place where God really does incredible work. That’s why frontline prayer is often called “Kingdom Prayer” or “Kingdom-Centered Prayer.

Why is this kind of prayer necessary? For one, I think it unifies God’s people by giving them something big to cry out to God together. While we certainly should pray for our individual needs (and by extension, make them known to others to pray for us), if that dominates our prayer life we can miss out on the opportunity to knit our hearts with God’s heart, His will with our will 3. With Kingdom Prayers, there’s no sense in which we can do this on our own and God must act.

Second, when we pray these bold prayers, it’s hard to earnestly pray for big things without sensing that your heart’s affections lean in that direction. For instance, if you start praying that Christians, real followers of Christ, in your city care deeply for the poor, my guess is it’s a matter of time before you not only start seeing poverty around you but you start caring for the poor! Kingdom Prayer seems to take big things and bring them home to rest in your own heart.

Third, I think it helps us take our eyes off ourselves. If you’re anything like me, you have your own version of the old spiritual, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” that you sing to yourself constantly. What Kingdom Prayer does is lift your eyes up to God to remind you that there is something much bigger that should occupy your thought life rather than getting stuck on your own stuff. Here are a few suggestions for Kingdom Prayers:

  1. Pray Luke 10:2. Pray that the Lord would raise up workers to enter His harvest! This is one of the few places where Jesus explicitly tells us to pray for something really big. Two hints. That word “beseech” means something closer to “plead”. Second hint… Jesus was not just talking about praying for missionaries to go overseas. He was talking about ordinary people who would rise up and labor in God’s harvest field in the here and now.
  2. Pray Paul’s prayers for believers for people your church. These include but are not limited to Eph. 1:15-23; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:3-14; 1 Thes. 1:2-3; 2 Thes. 1:11-12. You could even take 1 Corinthians 13 and Galatians 5 and plead with God that followers of Christ you know would exemplify these virtues more deeply and more pervasively in their relationships.
  3. Pray for your city – for your city officials, for churches, for the least (the poor and marginalized) and those who are lost. Pray for the world. Find an issue in the world that moves your heart like children who are often forgotten and abused and then start to pray for organizations like IJAM or Kid’s Alive. Or start praying through Operation World’s list of countries in the world.2

Finally, remember that God’s Kingdom is a reversal of the world’s values. Duke University theologian, Richard Hayes once commented on the book of Mark as follows: “God’s invasion of the world has brought about an inversion: God has reversed the positions of insiders and outsiders. Those who are in positions of authority and privilege reject Jesus and his message. Outsiders, however – people of low or despised position in the social world of first century Jewish culture – receive the gospel gladly, for their need is great.”4  In God’s Kingdom who is really rich? The one who recognizes her poverty. In God’s Kingdom who is really powerful? The one who embraces her own weakness. Who really is moving up in life? The one who goes down by humbling herself. When we pray Kingdom Prayers we are asking that the very fabric of the world as God created it, be revealed and come to bear on the world while settling deeply into our hearts in order to transform us.

Footnotes

1 Jack Miller, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, p. 98.
2 http://www.operationworld.org/country-lists
3 I’m reminded of Sören Kierkegaard’s prayer, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”
Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 89.

Pornography and the formation of the soul

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9005399_GWhen I was a boy, my uncle, who lived in the house in front of our’s, showed me his stash of contraband. It wasn’t drugs but it may as well have been. It was his stash of Playboy magazines. In an odd twist of the story, I asked if I could have some. When he approached my parents, I’m sure they must have had some sort of discussion about it, going back and forth, but when the dust had settled I was the new owner of a stack of magazines that any kid my age would have killed for.

That was the beginning of my learning what loving a woman was all about: keeping her at arms length while being mesmerized by her seeming perfection and wanting her not for her character but for her physical features. It was the beginning of a love affair not with a real person but with an object of desire. Along the long journey back, I’ve found that the desire was not derailed by telling myself “Stop it” and it magically disappears. The scars of that early addiction are ever present.

As I read today that Playboy magazine is getting out of offering nude photos in their magazine, there is very little to celebrate. At the height of circulation, Hugh Hefner’s flagship business had some 5.6 million subscribers. With readership dwindling to about 800,000 it forced the company to adjust its magazine offerings to “provocative poses”. Why? It’s what I found out. It’s hard to keep the consumption of porn “light” and “provocative”. The internet has made pornography easily accessible but also much more graphic in nature as it continues to enslave so many men today (woman have access to it but it seems to be predominantly a “guy thing”). Scott Flanders, Playboy’s chief executive recently told the NY Times, “The battle has been fought and won. You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free and so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

But why is pornography bad for the soul? Why is it at cross-purposes with real spiritual transformation at a deep level? I mean, isn’t it natural and who doesn’t slip a bit by wanting a peek of the forbidden fruit? For some this will not be convincing at all because it’s hard to reason yourself out of a behavior that you didn’t use reason to get yourself into. Yet, there is something about pornography that is deeply corrosive to the soul.

For one, the addictive nature of pornography is clear. For every guy I’ve spoken to who is locked into constantly viewing pornography, they will tell you how hard it is to stop. While physical attraction is an important part of a marriage covenant, pornography is “lust” as Paul describes it as epithumia in Galatians 5. The literal translation would be something like “over-desire” or something (anything) that) is desired with too much power, toward the wrong thing, at the wrong time, or in the wrong context. “Lust” then for anything, takes something good and beautiful and cheapens it, ironically by elevating and making it an ultimate desire. Addiction, which is in part the body’s physical response to the desire, is the body’s automatic response, this time with the click of a mouse.

Second, there is an accompanying guilt. Men that are courageous enough to admit publicly that pornography has an inordinate hold on their lives will express a deep sense of guilt. While a person could numb the guilt by rationalizing it away, people express being conflicted between the desires of the Spirit and the desires (epithumia) of the flesh (5:16-17). This produces a tremendous amount of guilt where one is mired in a behavior ruled by an over-desire that for many guys leads them to giving up because of how constant and wearying the battle seems to be.

Third, pornography is corrosive to the soul because it leads us to objectify the opposite sex. Simply put, you begin to see a woman not as a real person, who have real needs, emotions, longings, and a real backstory (this is someone’s daughter), but as an object, a thing that will never say anything back to you. Just like technology, the “person-ness” is gone because an object only exists to serve a function, in this case to provide pleasure. It is one of the greatest evidences of this “curved-inwardness” that Augustine spoke of with Luther later coining it as incurvatus en se.

Finally, pornography is corrosive because it devalues marital commitment. This should make sense because one doesn’t have to commit themselves to be fully known with an image. But in another way, pornography undermines real marriage commitment by providing men with a standard that most of our wives will never meet and for sure won’t meet as we grow older. It’s a way to live in a fake world filled with image but no substance while keeping sex in the realm of consumerism (I consume but give nothing in return). It keeps men at an adolescent state of commitment.

The list could go on. Again, it’s hard to reason people out of a behavior that they didn’t reason themselves into. Let’s admit that pornography is not going away and it’s availability will be increasingly present. So how do we actually live counter-culturally in this area? For starters, men should be talking about this in their small groups. There should be a spirit of openness knowing that other guys wrestle with this and our admission won’t lead to being looked down upon. It would be incredibly beneficial for men to gather and encourage one another by being honest and then pointing to the One who gave Himself, even for the use of pornography. Small groups take men from the pews to sitting face to face with each other, sharing not only the tipping points of using pornography but then reminding ourselves of the greater beauty of the Savior and the good news He brings.This is a particular area that we do need to keep fighting for joy, even if it means small steps of doing the right thing in the same direction. It’s beneficial for our souls as well as announcing to our kids that there is something worthy of fighting for.

 

Why People are Reluctant to Join a Small Group

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bce95ce808587d4b0669e82b216251afI caught myself this morning. Trying to encourage people to join a small group on social media this morning I found myself using the word, “should”. I immediately changed it because I wanted to make sure that in my zeal for people to join a group I wasn’t overlooking some real reasons why people are reluctant to jump into one. There is a way to encourage (and sometimes challenge) people to jump into a small group without “should’ing” them in. In shepherding people toward small groups there has to be at least an understanding why it’s hard for some people. Here are a few reasons it might be hard:

  1. Meeting new people makes me anxious. For some, being put into a new social setting with a group of new people causes stress. When they think about sharing their thoughts or what’s going on in their heart there is a deep anxiety or fear that wells up. Let’s face it, when in the course of a normal day do we sit around with people we don’t know and talk about God, the purpose of life, and the best way to live?
  2. I didn’t grow up in the church and haven’t been a part of a small group. Similar to #1, we are asking people to be a part of something they have no context for. Maybe they are really afraid it will become like a recovery group (Hi, my name is _____ and I’m feeling _____”) or maybe they simply feel like they will come across as ignorant because they don’t have much Bible knowledge.
  3. I don’t know how to open my life up to others. For some being open comes very naturally. For others, the idea of being “vulnerable” or “transparent” was not a part of their life growing up and it’s frightening. Our current cultural climate emphasizes you are responsible for your own life. Why then should I share with others? What if I put myself out there and they reject me? We talk about authenticity as Chrsitian but I wonder if people would talk about it as much if they understood what it meant.
  4. I have young kids. Have you ever tried to herd the kids and get them ready for church? It’s so exhausting that some parents can’t settled down enough to sit and worship on Sunday morning. Often by the time evening rolls around during the week and the kids are in bed, parents are looking for quiet. Most young parents I know are exhausted from the real work (yes, moms work!) and live with this tension of wanting down time yet craving adult-like conversations with friends.
  5. Our lives are busy. The demands of work, family, kids’ activities, friends, hobbies and a plethora of many other good things is the reality of our lives. While all of us need to be aware of how much we have on our plate and turning our kids into little idols (by letting their activities rule our life), the reality is we are all busy. I’m done with responding to “How are you doing?” with “Boy, I’ve been busy.” Why? Because everyone’s life is uber-busy and my life is no different. We are trying to follow God in the midst of many good and great opportunities! We are trying to shepherd our children well! It’s just that we all wrestle with how much is enough…
  6. I already have friends I’m close with. Some people only the capacity for a limited amount of social connections. When we ask people to join a small group are we asking them to do something that might be very difficult because they have reached their relational capacity? As one person asked, why are we asking people to connect with more people when they already have good relationships with a few people?
  7. I had a very bad experience with a small group. I can understand why some would be reluctant to join a small group based on a prior experience. It’s like asking a friend to come to church who had a very bad experience with church earlier. Maybe the group was just a lecture or the leader telling people what to do. Maybe it became too political with everyone griping about the direction of our country. Maybe it was just weird where people spoke about “the Lord told me”. Or maybe it was people came just to keep talking about their constant problems… and the list could go on and on! In addition, when multiplying groups becomes the subtle priority over life-on-life growing as a follower of Jesus, people begin to ask why they should even join when in 18 months the group will have to break up. In my experience, it takes awhile for many groups to reach that “comfort” level where they deeply bond so the thought of trying to bond with an impending “break up” is well, maddening.
  8. I have a personal relationship with Jesus and that’s enough. For many, they have grown up making a personal trusting commitment to Christ and that’s where it’s stayed. Many churches keep faith at an individual level all the way from constant altar calls to the rigor of showing up on church as an individual only to leave as an individual. The current climate adds to this by emphasizing that one’s religious beliefs are personal and should be largely kept to themselves.

These are real reasons that people tell themselves or give to others as a way to justify why they aren’t in a small group. As a small group/discipleship pastor I understand and I want to sit and listen without immediately offering the fix. That said, here’s what I would ask people to at least consider: What if there was a good response to each objection? If there were, would you be open to reconsidering staying out of a small group? While there certainly are clear commands (the “one another” commands, Hebrews 10:24-25) and a clear example (Acts 2:42-47) to share life with each other as believers, we don’t want to “should” people into any action. Let’s start where people are at, hear and understand their “objections” and then shepherd them into seeing that there is a kind of “body of Christ” life that is essential the Bride of Christ to enter into.

Friends for the Journey

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sam-and-frodoA few weeks ago, the family watched the middle installment of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy – The Two Towers. I hadn’t seen it in a long time but with my son taking an interest in reading and re-watching J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, I couldn’t help but jump in again!

What struck me this time was the heaviness of Frodo’s journey in carrying the one ring to Mordor. He,of all the Middle Earth inhabitants, was charged with an enormous task and as he approached the evil of Mordor, it became apparent that the task might overwhelm him. Much like the Christian life and the weight of sin that we all carry, it can feel overwhelming. In some ways, the ongoing presence of sin in our lives can discourage, defeat, and even overwhelm as we forget about the work of Christ on the cross.

Peter Jackson’s movie pictures how important Frodo’s relationship was with Samwise Gamgee. He is there not just for moral support but to protect Frodo from harm. He is there to walk with him in the perilous journey toward an unknown fate as well as provide company. One of the best scenes is when Frodo says in despair, “I can’t do this Sam”. Samwise responds,

“I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”

This is what happens in Life Groups as we come up alongside each other to encourage each other. That word “encourage” means, “to breathe courage into another”. Courage, as a virtue, according to Thomas Aquinas (the great medieval Doctor of the Church), is not so much bravery in battle but rather about enduring and moving forward in life in light of Christ’s victory. In this way, courage is “leveled” in that it is common person’s virtue and not just for the warrior elite.

So the real question is, who “breathes courage into you” along the journey when the heaviness of your dark sin weighs you down? Who is by your side urging you on when life feels like a dead end? More importantly, who stands by your side and points you to the gospel? Maybe the bigger question is, who do you let into your life to play this part? If you’re the one telling yourself to take courage, this leads to a great conflict because it’s you who is also telling yourself it’s not worth it. We all need others in our lives to tell us that “even the darkness will pass” and to keep moving forward toward God, not away from God, because of a robust gospel. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, 

“Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself, he cannot help himself without belying the truth.” 

A Christian Faith That Thrives in College

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WelcomeToCollegeMost of us have our markers that tell us summer is over and it’s time to head back to school. For some it’s getting the kids ready for school while for others it’s the leaves turning into beautiful bright colors. For me, it’s the first full weekend of college football! It brings me back not only to my own time as a graduate student in Boulder, Colorado but also the twenty three years serving as a Cru staff member/campus director then as college pastor at the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California.

I’ve been asked by many students and parents what it takes for a Christian to thrive in college. It’s a good question because, frankly, I’ve seen a lot of students who had a vibrant faith while in high school, only to find when they went to college that it waned, disappeared, or worse, was rejected. I’m sure some who read this aren’t in college but you know someone who knows someone who knows someone in college. Feel free to post this or send it to them. Here is what I would strongly encourage any college student to do:

Get Connected with a Christian Group. I know students who chose where they went to college based on a church or parachurch (organizations that come up alongside the church that specialize in discipleship and evangelism) group on the campus. When your school hosts a day early in the semester where all the clubs/group are present at the student center, intentionally look for the Christian groups. Here’s what to look for (and interview them) – ask how long they have been on the campus, if they are student or staff led (in my opinion it’s good to have actual staff there because it is the older mentoring the younger and not just young leading young), ask if they have small groups that actually do something like evangelism or the goal is to train people to disciple others, ask if they have a summer missions program, and ask what they think the gospel is (you might be surprised at the answer you get). Here’s the critical part… find a group right away and get connected in relationally because left to itself the inertia of the first few weeks of college is to lessen the importance of faith.

Pay Attention to Your Heart.  Students have often told me, “I don’t know why but I just got into college life and put my faith on the shelf.” Like Gollum who was fascinated with the shiny ring, calling it “his Precious”, you will find yourself gravitating toward that which seems precious or fun while serving as a substitute for a real, living, personal God. There is a reason why partying, academics, watching Netflix all day and long into the night seem to pull you in. It’s because your heart is trying to answer some deeply profound questions that adults have to wrestle with: Who will accept me? What’s meaningful in my life that brings not a sense of purpose but deep fulfillment? What’s worth giving my life to? Why even apply myself at times? What comes out of you shouldn’t surprise you. It’s the core of you that wants something “transcendent” (something other than you to give you meaning, purpose and power). What’s amazing about human beings is how easy it is for them to replace God with anything else that serves as an ultimate in their life. My translation of Blaise Pascal in The Pensees would be something like, “The existential hole that seems to reside in your heart can only be filled by an eternal, loving person. Nothing temporal will ever satisfy you.”

Pay Attention to Your Mind. For many Christians who head off to college, their Christian faith has reduced to a kind of sin management. Because right behavior was the focus growing up, when the Christian faith “doesn’t work” it’s much easier to reject it. Then when you come up against thoughtful people who see Christianity more as wishful thinking, it’s easier for you to lump their spiritual upbringing as a kind of mythology that your parents used to keep you behaving right. However, in my experience, it’s absolutely essential for you to get rooted in the understanding that Christianity is not blind or wishful thinking but actually intellectually robust. There has been in history and there is today an intellectual aspect today that should not be dismissed quickly. For instance, while liberal arts departments are becoming increasingly hostile toward evangelical Christians, there has been a wonderful resurgence of Christian philosophers who are intellectually virtuous and yet hold to key tenets of historical Christianity. All this to say, as a college student you don’t need to settle for the conclusion that Christians are dumb or intellectually dishonest.  Maybe some (or many) are but you don’t need to be!

Own Your Faith. Christian Smith’s landmark study of high school students concluded that their “faith” could be best be described as something he called, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”:

Moralistic – Christianity is to help me be a good, nice, kind, pleasant person. This means I have to work on self-improvement and do my best to be successful.

Therapeutic – God exists really to make me happy or to feel good. Christianity is not to be taken too seriously because it would get in the way of me and what makes me feel good. When Christianity doesn’t make me feel good I get bored.

Deism – God exists and He’s the one who created everything. But the point of life is not to have Him involved in all areas of my life. It’s to confine Him to the religious part. There are some areas that are just too important and therefore I must keep them for myself. In effect, I acknowledge a God but He’s pretty much left it to me to fend for myself.

In short, God becomes less of a person who is intimately involved in the affairs of our lives, who because of Christ places His stamp of approval upon us (Hebrew 13:5), and promises us a Kingdom life that we have always deeply wanted, and becomes more an object who serves to meet my needs. Owning your faith is remembering that you are not the point of it all. Neither are you awesome. But there is someone who is the point, who is Awesome and who is presently with you. What if the gospel you have heard and employed in your life is simply about “getting saved” or “being good”? That’s not sufficient to carry you through life nor will it provide the goods in life that describe what it means to live well in life (not just be nice or good). Go back and gain a fuller understanding of just how robust the gospel is!

Regularly Attend a Local Church. The ongoing discussion as long as I can remember is should a church have priority or should a campus organization? I don’t want to get into all the arguments for or against. I would simply say, if you have a vibrant campus ministry, get connected and see it as training for life. Get rooted and grounded in your faith where your faith becomes your own in a way that will last when you get out of college. But don’t ignore church. Why? Probably from a pragmatic standpoint, at some point you will graduate and leave the campus. Stay connected to a gospel-centered church because at some point you will serve the local church. As a pastor we want to take everything good that you learned while giving yourself to the Lord’s Kingdom work on a campus and translate that to helping serve the local church. As pastors we want to see the value of where you in life and affirm that while continuing to invite you to remain connected in worship to a church. Now if you don’t have a college ministry on your campus, then find an older person at church who can mentor you, train you, send you out to share your faith, help you engage in regular spiritual practices, while serving the local church! Learn how to give your life away and not hoard it all to yourself!

Here’s a couple of books (besides immersing yourself in the gospel accounts and the Psalms)  I would highly recommend as reading for every Christian that’s headed to college. I know and trust both of them and they were written with a college student in mind: Metamorpha by Kyle Strobel and Mind Your Faith by David Horner. In addition, I would strongly suggest students read people like Tim Keller’s Reasons for God, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Even if you have to find others to discuss and figure out what the authors are saying, it’s worth it to find likeminded people who will keep you sharp in your thinking and living.